Imagine two different college classes: in one the instructors is always logical and serious; and in the other the instructor throws in frequent jokes only tangentially related the subject. In which class do students learn more? According to research it depends the students. In one study, Melissa Bekelja Wanzer found that humor found offensive or directed at students interfered with learning. In another study, Mark Shatz, and Frank LoSchiavo discovered that when a professor made self-deprecating jokes and included subject-related cartoons in on-line classes, students said that they enjoyed the class more.
But that research doesn’t tell us in which class the students learned more. The problem is that most studies on how humor affects learning end up with mixed results. Wasner found that when professors use a dry sense of humor when instructing, the students perceived them as better communicators. (In the same manner doctors who occasionally spoke in a witty manner were viewed more favorably by their patients.) However, if instructors repeatedly put themselves down, some students viewed them as less competent. There is no escape from the differences in what students perceived as funny. What one person thinks is sufficient enough to arouse a chuckle may go over the head of another student. What brings up a belly laugh in one, may be considered overdone slapstick by another.
John Hopkins University professor, Ron Berk, PhD, uses humorous skits to promote learning in his biostatistics class. His goal is to help students with different learning styles see how statistics work and encourage divergent learning that is applicable in real life. But humor’s role in relieving stress is what makes it valuable in his estimation. “It helps relieve fear and reduce anxiety…prior to or during an exam, humorous directions or test items may relieve students’ tension and help them perform better.”
So remember to keep your best, most relevant joke to tell just before that killer exam.
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When does humor help to get your point across?